Being a Woman in a Dual-Integrity Denomination
The question shocked me for a moment, not because it was offensive but because no one has asked it of me before: what is it like to be a woman in a dual-integrity denomination, in an organization where some leaders do not recognize women’s ordination as valid and where women are barred from the highest levels of leadership?
This question was asked of me and the three other women in a seminary course held around the Telos Collective conference on Anglican missiology and ecclesiology. (The Telos Collective is a missional organization with the Anglican Church in North America [ACNA] that is led by my own bishop, Todd Hunter. I’m not writing about Todd, but he is the real deal. After spending just a few hours with him during the conference, I’m incredibly grateful to be in his diocese.)
For those of you not versed in the ACNA, two years ago it decided to allow bishops to choose whether or not they would ordain women, and to what level they would ordain women. Around a quarter of the bishops will ordain women to the priesthood, but women are barred from becoming bishops. And this is still a point of contention, with many unhappy that the ACNA ordains women at all. I wrote about the ACNA’s decision to be a dual-integrity denomination here.
The man who asked us what it is like to pursue ordination in this organization is not part of the ACNA; he came from a tradition with women at all levels of leadership. I appreciated his acknowledgement of the challenges we face and, even more, the space he created for us to share our stories with the men who have power but not the visceral experience of being a woman in the ACNA.
I certainly had opinions at the time and I did share them. But I keep thinking about this question and I want to write down my thoughts, because as much as I value unity in the church and as much as I appreciate the leaders — male and female — who have encouraged me as I move into church leadership, I sometimes struggle with being a woman in a denomination where some would deny the call I’ve been experiencing.
Being a woman in a dual-integrity denomination means never being sure whether I will be fully welcome in certain spaces or if I will, instead, be asked to make myself lesser in order to be accepted.
It means knowing that my peers and other leaders in the denomination deny my experience of a call to ministry, and likely to the priesthood, on the sole basis of my gender, not on any actual knowledge of me as a person.
It means not being represented at the highest levels of leadership. I don’t have models of women bishops. And, no matter how sympathetic my male bishop may be to the women in his diocese, he does not have the experience and perspective of a woman and so the policies that he and other bishops shape lack direct imput from the women who make up at least half of their congregations.
It means feeling like I have to be grateful for what I’ve been given and not make waves about wanting more. And I am grateful for male allies, since they do have power and influence. But I hate that my status is contingent on men deciding whether or not I should have it.
It means that, because I have to be grateful, it’s difficult to call out the deeply-rooted sexism that still exists even in dioceses and churches that ordain women. I don’t see this in my church very much, but often people think that simply supporting women’s ordination in theory is good enough; they don’t actively seek to encourage, include, and mentor women into leadership positions in their churches.
It means being made secondary to unity. People on both sides of the question point out that women’s ordination isn’t a credal issue, so we should be able to let it go. But I am not secondary. I am a person, created in the image of God just like my male peers. And I resent that my ability to serve God as God has called me might be curtailed in the name of unity — unity which is mostly about peace-keeping among male leaders at the expense of women.
All of this sounds very angry feminist, and I won’t deny that there is some anger (and plenty of feminism). But I can live and work and seek ordination in the ACNA as a dual-integrity organization; I’m not leaving because some bishops wouldn’t recognize my (hypothetical) ordination as valid. This space is significantly better than many others, than the churches of my youth that wholly denied women’s ordination.
But I also am not going to pretend that this is good enough.
I am grateful for the men who have advocated for my right to ordination. I value unity in the church. But I do not want my daughters, the girls in my church’s youth group, or the college women attending my church to feel pressure to be grateful for partial inclusion and to endure being made into a secondary issue for the sake of unity, which feels a lot like being a secondary person.
And so I am going to keep explaining why this isn’t good enough, to keep advocating for women’s full inclusion at every level from lay leadership all the way up to bishop. I understand that it will take time. But I hope I can see the day when no one is excluded from any level of service in the ACNA on the basis of their gender alone.